On the joys of semi-vegetarianism

We hear a lot about climate change and the need for sustainability, and usually it’s a massive overwhelming problem that’s completely out of our hands. I’m not a great fan of this portrayal, because the truth is that the rich-ish humans could put a huge dent in global warming simply by consuming less, buying less, eating less, driving less and needing less. We can do this in every aspect of our lives, but this post is about food.

I’m not going to get into the whole environmental argument here, but like a lot of other forms of consumption, the amount of meat consumed by Americans and Australians is completely unsustainable. This graph gives you some idea of how much meat we consume, although most other sources have Australia (and NZ) right up alongside the USA and on a completely different level to the rest of the world.

Australians and Americans don’t just eat a lot more meat than poor countries, they also eat more meat than other rich countries with more balanced diets (and, funnily enough, lower levels of obesity) (and funnily enough, lower per-capita CO2 emmissions).

Most of us also agree that the way most of our meat is produced is pretty sickening, and most of us choose not to know about it so that we can keep eating unsustainable amounts of meat without feeling too guilty, and because cheap meat is a pretty easy way to put together a filling meal.

And then of course there are the tiny minority of vegetarians (5-10% of the population), who for various reasons forsake meat altogether. For every vegetarian there seem to be another half a dozen people who appreciate the idea behind vegetarianism, but “couldn’t live without meat”, and thus carry on eating including meat in almost every meal.

What’s generally been lacking is a middle way: ordinary people who choose to eat less meat, because the reasons for eating less meat are just as sound as the reasons for eating no meat at all, and you don’t have to give up meat.

I’ve seen this thought pop up from time to time – recently I remember reading a story about people who were “weekend vegetarians” or “weekday vegetarians”,  thus reducing their meat intake by 30-70% – but I haven’t yet seen it develop into a strong movement.

Anyway, last August Grace and I moved into a nice little apartment with a gas stove and a large fridge, which gave us the perfect opportunity to embrace this semi- or almost-vegetarianism.

The first decision we made was to only buy what we would call “ethical meat”, which isn’t a hard and fast definition but an answer on a case-by-case basis to the guiding question, “would I feel good eating this?”

That doesn’t mean “if I buy this nicely processed, plastic-wrapped piece of chicken from the supermarket for $2.99, with no knowledge of the journey it took to get here, will it taste nice?”

It means “do I want to buy this meat, in full knowledge of how it came to be here?” That means most of our meat comes from the farmers’ market, most of it is sold to us by people who understand and can explain the process of raising animals (which we know almost nothing about), and most of it comes from farms with philosophies that go far, far beyond producing the cheapest cuts of meat.

Yes, this meat costs more than it would at the supermarket (although not necessarily more than the technically-organic-but-still-mass-produced meat at the supermarket). All this means is that the price we pay much more accurately reflects the cost to the land, the atmosphere, the farmer and the animal that we are eating. It’s a fairer system.

Most days we don’t eat meat at all. Last night we had mushroom risotto and a salad. The night before we had sweet potato chips and a big salad full of butternut pumpkin/squash and goat’s cheese. I like to start the day with scrambled eggs, avocado and spinach on a bagel. These are simple, cheap, delicious meals. We eat a lot of eggs, a fair few mushrooms and a little bit of tofu. We have a few different superfood grains that do different magical things, and Grace tells me which ones to use when we need a bit of protein in our meal.

Even when we do eat meat, we’ve realised that we don’t need much of it. Growing up in a family that used a kilogram of mince in an average meal, this surprised me. As little as a quarter to a half of a pound of meat generally satisfies the two of us. A sausage each – if they’re delicious enough sausages – is enough to go alongside a nice salad and some good bread. Half a pound of bacon can impart enough flavour to make a delicious soup for six. The same amount of beef gets us at least two meals of lasagne.

When we go out, we’re not fussy. If we arrive at someone’s house and they offer us meat, we eat it. If there’s a free sample, we’re all over it. Last week we went to a superbowl party and I ate a massive pile of pulled pork and ribs. Once I event went to the local fried chicken shop for a cultural experience with a friend from home. We don’t miss out on anything: if we see meat and crave it, we eat it, or we go home and have something even yummier. Not setting onerous boundaries means we don’t  have a month-long existential crisis every time we look at a steak, or a menu for that matter.

But being aware of our meat consumption, and making a conscious effort to connect with the meat we do eat, has led to six months of the most delicious eating I can remember. I’ve never felt that I’ve missed out on anything – in fact the exact opposite, as we’ve discovered a whole range of delicious seasonal vegetables that I never knew existed.

So without giving up anything, we’re eating well under the world average meat consumption of somewhere between 30 and 40kg/year, a third to a quarter of what the average American or Australian consumes. I reckon some more people should try it.

One thought on “On the joys of semi-vegetarianism”

  1. Eddy, I have been living this way for over a year now and I totally agree. I’ve developed a new appreciation for veges and manage to eat quality protein every day using eggs, cheese, yoghurt and lots of beans and lentilly things. Well said.

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